Writing's on the wall

The Model Men could be described as a triangular “writerly” art exhibition, since it has gone to unusual lengths to open itself to cross-genre, multifocal scrutiny and to question the standard way in which image follows text. Joachim Schönfeldt’s illustrations appear on embossed paper alongside text written by Ivan Vladislavic.

Commonly, the writer asks the artist is to illustrate the writing. Here, the artist has created images and asked the writer to respond to them.

Then a second writer and cultural theorist, Andries Walter Oliphant, was asked for commentary and to pull the texts together for an exhibition.

According to Vladislavic the process began eight years ago when Schönfeldt started making images.

Vladislavic describes Schönfeldt’s method: “These images start as low-relief carvings on wood. He puts sheets of paper over the wood, wets it and works it to make low-relief embossed images. He paints these using enamel or oil paint and varnishes them, creating a set of images.”

In 2000 Schönfeldt approached Vladislavic with “illustrations for an unwritten text”. “He showed me the original embossed works, and then gave me photographed copies. He didn’t say, ‘this is what I’m trying to do’,” Vladislavic recalls. “His strategy was to make them look like illustrations. The images were divided into two sets, one called Silence! and one called Roar.”

Silence! consists of portraits (of between one and five faces on a page), sets of coloured dots, pyramid-shaped structures, a minibus taxi, a typical township matchbox house and a delinked castle (like Cape Town’s Castle of Good Hope except its five components are detached). While Roar consists of a set of two-headed animals and birds — a cow, eagle, lioness and peahen.

In his exhibition catalogue Schönfeldt explains that he gave each portrait a “double” or “narrative accelerator” designed to provoke writing.

“I paired the one-face portrait with a taxi (as an example of transport). The two-faced portrait is paired with a typical township matchbox house (used here as an example of location). The double of the three-face portrait is a social pyramid (a diagrammatic representation of social strata). The double of the four-face portrait is four dots and that of the five-face portrait a five-pointed castle.”

Roar meanwhile, “tries to imagine what the iconography of a pan-African religion might look like”.

Vladislavic says he sat with the images for six months, “living with them, trying to absorb them”. He started to see patterns — for example there are four dots, four pyramids and four taxis.

Instead of producing brief captions, which had been his first impulse, Vladislavic delivered four works of short fiction, collectively called The Exploded View.

Schönfeldt’s dilemma was what to do with such a large body of text. First, he thought he’d exhibit the whole text, but he wasn’t happy with the results.

Then it occurred to him that they needed a third person to work with the material in a raw way.

Oliphant did one set of selections, then another, and matched fragments of text with the illustrations. He referenced a semiotic methodology to explain the way encrypted images linking “contemporary urban life and ancient African symbols” in Schönfeldt’s work have been engaged with and transformed by Vladislavic.

The extraordinary thing about The Model Men is that none of the men collaborated. At no point did any one corner of the triangle try to impose a point of view or a system through, or by, which to analyse their work.

Vladislavic gave his writerly interpretations of, and response to, Schönfeldt’s work and Oliphant responded to both sets of work in terms of his own aesthetic and academic training.

Vladislavic admits there are images he responded to more than to others — he was more interested in the structural aspects of Schönfeldt’s art, for example, than to the detailed meaning that might be being communicated through one of the multi-headed creatures. He enjoyed the way Schönfeldt’s faces “appeared to be repetitions. They were almost uniform, but not quite.”

Oliphant, in turn, describes his delight at uncovering apparently inexhaustible layers of meaning in the work of the artist and the writer.

The audience will undoubtedly participate, lending credence to the postmodernist view that the art work is not complete until the last viewer has a say.

The details

The Model Men opens on September 4 and runs until September 10 at the Wits University art gallery, University Corner, Jan Smuts Avenue, Braamfontein. Tel: (011) 717 1365

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